Monday, 21 December 2015


Looking over the East Swale to the Isle of Sheppey

This is the view looking across to Harty Ferry at midwinter. The river Swale can appear particularly desolate and remote in winter, which is of course part of its charm. With a chill northerly wind blowing briskly over the flat marshland it can at times even seem slightly bleak.

And yet the Swale was not always so empty.  A hundred years ago there was a thriving industry on the south side of the river, including the marshes in the foreground of this picture. There was a large industrial complex covering about 500 acres.  There had long been factories here manufacturing and processing explosives, and the river would have been busy with many sailing barges and other small craft.  It was here, at 2.20pm on Sunday 2nd April 1916 that the 'Great Explosion' occurred, which killed 116 workers including the entire works fire brigade. The cause was a fire which started in some empty sacks and then spread to set off 15 tons of TNT and 150 tons of ammonium nitrate.

It was the worst disaster ever to occur in the history of the UK's explosives industry. Safety standards had become relaxed in the drive to increase output to meet wartime needs.  Much of the site remained undamaged however and the explosives works continued in production until after the end of the war, when it was closed down due to its vulnerability to aerial bombing.
The Golden Hind  aground on Harty Ferry causeway

On my first visit to Harty Ferry on Bonita with my parents in 1954, we found a flying boat firmly aground on the northern shore. This was tremendously exciting for a small boy. It seemed to be completely unguarded, and once the tide had gone down we were able to climb inside and look around.  We imagined some dramatic mid-air crisis that had necessitated an emergency landing in the Swale. The reality turned out to be rather more prosaic. This was an obsolete aircraft whose certificate of airworthiness had expired some years before. It had been towed to the Swale and anchored in the river. During a south-westerly gale the anchor dragged. The plane came to rest, not on the soft mud which is in such abundance here, but on a concrete causeway, puncturing the hull.  Presumably it was broken up for scrap eventually, although I believe some of the furnishings are still in the Ferry House Inn which can be seen in the background of the picture.

I remember my feeling of disappointment when we next went to Harty Ferry to find the flying boat was no longer there.